NFTs were everywhere in 2021, a metaphorical plague to accompany the literal one we were all dealing with. They were ubiquitous, hyped, and very annoying. Non Fungible Token? More like No F’in Thanks.
But they’re here, and they’re here to stay, so let’s do a little primer, because NFTs are a complicated, convoluted mess of a concept. A large part of that is by design – artists and investors want their thing to feel special, unique, alluring. Creating an impenetrable linguistic framework is part of the propaganda of art.
But it’s actually fairly simple. For a start, an NFT in itself is not art. An NFT is a contract, which you can use to sell art. Let’s say you have an image you’ve made, and you want to make some money off it. You can create an NFT to function as a traceable contract for the image, proving who made it, and showing who bought it. The image itself is just an image, the NFT is the contract that’s created and exchanged to prove ownership of the image.
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But people are constantly talking about NFTs as if they’re art, rather than contracts for art. So is there an NFT aesthetic? Yes, definitely. And when people talk about NFTs as if they are works of art in their own right, they’re often talking about things like CryptoKitties or Bored Ape, cartoons that are hugely popular as NFTs.
But in those instances, the art exists as an excuse to trade cryptocurrencies – the art is almost irrelevant, it’s a face for the trade, a symbol of it: the most important thing is the contract. This is about financial speculation, it’s not about art.
And it’s only getting bigger. Every corporation you can imagine is getting in on the game. But this is the popular, greedy, avaricious public face of NFTs. It’s the surface level, and it’s not that interesting in and of itself. As the artist Rafael Rozendaal recently put it: ‘2021: accountants became artists, artists became accountants’.
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But under that surface, there’s plenty of fascinating stuff bubbling away. And my prediction – and hope – is that that bubbling turns into more of a rolling boil of interesting art. There are already platforms like Feral File, which take a more curatorial approach to NFTs, and then there are artists like IX Shells and Zach Lieberman, who create generative artwork made by AI, and Rhea Myers and Mitchell Chan who use the contract as their actual medium. These are ‘crypto-native’ artists in many ways, creators who have placed NFT technology at the heart of their work, not just used it as a trading platform. They’re finding ways to explore, expand and undermine the concept of NFTs.
And all of this before we even look at the idea of NFT theft. As monkeys and kitties and pixelated portraits get nicked, or as artists find other people creating NFTs out of their work, confidence in the process will decline, and with it the value. As that happens, as money becomes less and less of an object, more interesting art will be created. Art that’s not just about trading cryptocurrency.
If we ignore the inevitable incoming corporate greed of McDonald’s turning the Hamburglar into a crypto token or Starbucks trying to mint your frappuccino on the blockchain, if we just dig a little deeper, there might just be some nuggets of NFT art gold to be found in 2022.